Caravaggio – The original master of darkness and light

Always the same JesusBeyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery is an exhibition that examines the influence of one of art’s true originals, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the exhibition focuses on his influence on art via the Caravaggisti and later followers (Only 6 of the 49 paintings in the show are actually by Caravaggio), Caravaggio’s influence reaches well into to the present day; his use of everyday subjects and of dramatic lighting are cited as an influence on director Martin Scorsese, the photographer David LaChapelle and visual artist Mat Collishaw.

Caravaggio lived a short, turbulent life that was celebrated and notorious in equal measure.  He was orphaned to the plague as a boy of six.  At eleven he apprenticed in Milan but left in haste after wounding a police officer.  At 21 he moved to Rome and gained fame with the success of his first public commissions, but he was regularly in court and jailed on several occasions.  He was known for his drinking and whoring as well his brawling.  His powerful supporters helped smooth things over with the authorities but there was only so much they could do to contain a man overflowing with violence.  According to the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) Caravaggio spend his time in Rome “in the company of his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows—painters and swordsmen—who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’”  He was, as Time Out noted, a real Baroque and Roller.

In 1606 he had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after he killed a well known pimp in a knife fight.  He spent the rest of his life on the run in fear of his life in Malta, Naples and Sicily. He slept in this clothes and always had his dagger to hand.  His art, unsurprisingly, became darker and he was horribly mutilated by his enemies when they caught up with him in Naples in 1609.  It is likely that they inflicted a sfregio (facial wound), as a visible sign of revenge. He died, still on the run, in 1610 aged 38.

Caravaggio is most famous for his dramatic use of light, an extreme variant of chiaroscuro, using dark shadows to produce strong contrasts between light and dark with an incredible tonal range.  With this he captured form and added drama to his scenes in a way that no one before him had accomplished.  The scenes he painted were spot lit from above; he once had a run in with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light.  It is so modern looking that David Hockney has referred to it as  ‘Hollywood lighting’.   There are claims by Italian researchers that his chiaroscuro is based on a form of photographic technique – the suggestion is that Caravaggio projecting the image of his subjects onto canvas using a lens and mirror and that he treated the canvas with a light-sensitive substance made from crushed fireflies, in order to fix the image.  This hypothesis remains unproven.

He combined dramatic lighting with a new kind of naturalism – painting people from the streets directly from life, and with incredible levels of often dirty hyperrealism created without drawing beforehand.  He populated biblical scenes with Roman prostitutes, beggars and thieves, bringing the sacred and the gutter together as he did so and dividing popular opinion.  He also applied the same level of detail and realism to still life as to the people in his paintings.  Great emphasis can be seen in the still life on the table in front of Christ at the ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), for example.  It was this combination of dramatic lighting and realism that created the pictorial and narrative power he became renowned for.  In an era when great art required powerful visual story telling, he elevated this to new heights.
Caravaggio was hugely influential throughout Italy and this spread to France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the exhibition seeks to show his influence by bringing together a collection of Caravaggio-inspired pieces.  These are my top three highlights of the show:
  • The Taking of Christ, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, The Taking of Christ is a high contrast, dramatic treatment of the familiar biblical story of betrayal.  It is set in the garden of Gethsemane rendered as indeterminate, dark space, lit by the moon and, weakly, by lantern held by Carravagio who peers in from the edge of the scene.   (The shot on this post shows that image of Caravaggio in the background).  The painting offers a flash illuminated freeze frame of three soldiers in black armour, their faces largely hidden, who have come with Judas to seize Christ  – one of them grasping his throat with a mailed fist.  The brutality of the state is in contrast with the calm and meek Christ, who offers no resistance, whilst St. John the Evangelist flees from the violence in anguish.   It is dense, mysterious and incredibly dramatic.
  • Christ displaying his Wounds,  Giovanni Antonio Galli (nicknamed Lo Spadarino because his father was a sword smith).  Perhaps the greatest work of one of the most talented and inventive of Caravaggio’s disciples, this painting is as hyper real is it is strange.   A pale Jesus, lit by light that appears to come from nowhere, and naked except for his shroud, holds the wound on this side apart with hands holed by nails.  He makes direct eye contact with us with an expression that is full of accusation
  • The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera.  Saint Bartholomew’s executioner sharpens his knife in preparation of the flaying his about to perform – the knife and steel forming a symbolic cross.  Bartholomew stretches out his arms to heaven, creating a powerful diagonal, his face lit by grace as much as light.  The executioner’s expression is inscrutable, which makes the painting quite frightening.

I was looking for an image to accompany this post from my day’s shooting when I came across the shot above, which was taken outside the gallery after I had visited it.  I hadn’t considered it as  a candidate for this purpose as I hadn’t noticed the image of Caravaggio’s face from The Taking of Christ in the background.  When I did I was delighted, as the subject of the shot is carrying a placard reading ‘JESUS CHRIST the same yesterday today and for ever.’  This combination was pleasing to me; there is Caravaggio, in a detail from a painting from 1602, linked to a message about Christ being the same today as he was in the past.  The picture was shot with a Leica Q at f2.8 at 1/8000 sec.  The sunlight was very bright after the heavy rain that had fallen earlier so I used -1 ev of exposure compensation to stop the highlights blowing out.   It is a high contrast shot, which is entirely appropriate for the purpose.  Between the man with the placard and Caravaggio there are also two figures that bring something to the shot.  A woman, dressed in light clothing,  scrutinises the street preacher, who is dressed in black, whilst in the middle distance a girl shades her eyes as she looks at him also.  Both these figures provide detail on different planes, which is generally desirable.

 


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